In Turkey, the President's Election Strategy Backfires

9 MINS READJun 5, 2015 | 21:17 GMT
(GOKHAN TAN/Getty Images)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul by Ottoman Turks on May 30, 2015.


  • The strong performance of the left-wing, pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), along with growing nationalism, will threaten the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) majority in parliament.
  • The widening appeal of the HDP, Turkey's weak economy, its growing security vulnerabilities and a highly polarized political climate will give the HDP a shot at earning the 10 percent of votes needed to challenge the AKP's majority. However, the ruling party's economic patronage and traditional focus on religion, in contrast to the HDP's liberal agenda, will drive votes for the AKP.
  • If the AKP does not earn a majority but comes close to it, lawmakers could negotiate party converts and buy votes by returning to the Kurdish peace process. But a wider gap in seats would necessitate forming a coalition and could lead to early elections.
  • Whether the AKP retains its majority or not, Turkey is headed for more political instability. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan created his own worst enemy in June 7 general elections. The left-wing, pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), led by a young, charismatic Kurd, Selahattin Demirtas, has a decent chance of earning more than the 10 percent of votes needed to make it into parliament and to deprive the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of the comfortable majority that Erdogan needs to rule absolutely.

Without at least 367 seats in Turkey's 550-seat parliament, Erdogan will not have the supermajority he needs to bring Turkey under a presidential system, which would formally augment his powers. Without at least 276 seats, Erdogan will lack the simple majority needed to form a government on his own, much less to secure a presidential transition plan via referendum. Judging by the 2014 local elections and a smattering of polls of questionable reliability, the AKP could slip below the 276-seat mark. It would not be a shock to see the AKP take a hit in this election considering Turkey's stagnant economy, Erdogan's inability to reassure voters of a return to prosperity, a highly polarized electorate that will question the incumbent's populist credentials after more than a dozen years in power, and growing security vulnerabilities that underscore the government's weak foreign policy record.

Blowback From Erdogan's Plan

How big a hit the AKP ultimately takes depends primarily on the performance of the HDP, a party that ironically has Erdogan to thank for much of its momentum in this election. Erdogan's original election strategy was to use the promise of a Kurdish peace deal to secure the Kurdish vote, which would grant him super-presidency powers. Erdogan took ownership of the Kurdish problem early in his campaign. He even used the Ottoman term "vilayet" to refer to a Kurdish semi-autonomous province, embracing a more liberal view of how Turkey would engage and recognize the minorities it had once tried to eliminate. In March 2014, the government passed a democratization package that legalized the use of Kurdish language in private schools, in literature and in political campaigns while also enabling the pro-Kurdish parties to increase spending by lowering the minimum national vote threshold for political parties to receive treasury funds. At the same time, a delicate negotiation inched forward between the government and Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), in which members of the HDP and its predecessor, the Peace and Democracy Party, participated as intermediaries.

But the closer the country comes to the elections, the more untenable Erdogan's strategy has become. Insurgencies in Syria and Iraq created a wave of separatist fervor, drawing fighters from all corners of the Kurdish region, including Turkey. The AKP's attempt to negotiate disarmament in an environment in which Kurdish fighters were in high demand predictably failed. At the same time, spreading Kurdish militancy and the prospect of a Kurdish statelet reignited the Turkish nationalist vote, sending more potential AKP supporters to the Nationalist Movement Party. In an attempt to straddle both the Kurdish and the nationalist camps, the AKP would pledge a commitment to the peace process and accuse the Kurds of sedition in the same breath. The idea that the AKP was the only party that could guarantee a peace settlement was quickly losing credibility.

Refusing to Be Sidelined

An opportunity lay before Turkey's Kurds. The Kurdish camp in Turkey is not a monolithic entity. Dozens of acronyms split the conservative Islamists from the leftists and the militant from the political, with many of these divisions prone to turning violent. But the increasingly tangible prospect of battling for political autonomy through the ballot box appealed to all factions. Rather than have the AKP own the political negotiation with the Kurds, with Kurdish politicians trying to operate from the sideline under AKP conditions, why not try to direct the process from the center? And if Kurdish voters were tempted to join the opposition against Erdogan, particularly after the 2013 Gezi Park protests, then better to do so under their own platform than get lumped in an opposition camp alongside hardcore nationalists.

PKK leader Ocalan has long understood that the key to Kurdish electoral success in Turkey is to broaden out beyond ethnic identity politics of the predominantly Kurdish southeast to a more encompassing, left-leaning agenda. The HDP has built a reputation of supporting minority rights beyond the Kurds with a platform of defending social justice and welfare, gender equality, the environment, labor rights and democratization. For example, the HDP is the only party with a European-style quota for women and has promoted other minorities for political office. The strategy appears to be working: Women form a significant part of the HDP's support. Many HDP supporters are also simply looking for a fresh opposition alternative to back, and they feel that the AKP has lost sight of its populist agenda in favor of cronyism after years of incumbency.

Attracting the religious conservative vote will be the main hurdle the HDP must cross. Its liberal social agenda could turn off more pious voters, while the AKP could take advantage and present itself as the "legitimate" Muslim party. Prior to the founding of the HDP, the AKP performed well among religious Kurdish voters. Realizing it is in danger of losing a significant chunk of the Kurdish vote to the HDP in this election, the AKP has focused heavily on its religious constituency, portraying a vote for the AKP as a vote for Islamic values.

Pure Economics

The conservative vote may really come down to the economic livelihood of the constituency. Erdogan remains the key patron and benefactor of the conservative elite who have remained in the president's good graces. An AKP incumbency would ensure that the perks of being close to the president, from favoritism in awarding contracts to financial breaks, remain intact. This was the message Erdogan intended to convey when he audaciously promised a Mercedes-Benz and private jet to Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs in the days leading up to the election. Though his statements further riled the opposition, those votes were already against him anyway.

But the deterioration of the Turkish economy cannot be obscured by campaign tactics, especially for the lower rungs on the social ladder. With Turkey's rising unemployment and inflation, stagnant growth and a volatile exchange rate, the AKP's promises to promote economic prosperity will be questioned and could play to the favor of opposition parties such as the HDP, which have adopted a grassroots populist agenda similar to the AKP's in its early years.

All or Nothing

The HDP is still taking a big risk, however. By running as a party, as opposed to running independents, the HDP could lose all of its seats if it earns less than 10 percent of the vote, leaving those seats up for grabs by the AKP, which could then garner enough electoral support to push the presidential transition to referendum. Not only would Kurdish representation in parliament be significantly weakened in this scenario, but the HDP's broader political base would collapse if it were no longer seen as a viable challenger to the AKP. With the HDP politically sidelined and without the electoral incentive to keep the peace process with the PKK alive, Turkey could eventually see a revival of the insurgency at the same time as domestic political violence and regional jihadism are on the rise.

Should the HDP earn at least 10 percent of the votes, then it becomes a question of how many seats the AKP falls short of when trying to form a government. If only a handful of seats are needed, the AKP could bargain for enough party converts to form a government on its own. If it faces a bigger shortfall, the AKP will have to choose between forming a coalition with the pro-Kurdish HDP or with the Nationalist Movement Party.

The AKP could see the benefit to forming a coalition with the HDP: Making concessions on the Kurdish issue in exchange for support for the presidential system would put its original plan back on track. After the election, the potential for political pragmatism rises. As former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel famously said, "Yesterday is yesterday, today is today." The extent to which the HDP will risk its credibility in striking such a deal remains an open question. The HDP has already vowed it would not join a coalition with the AKP in the pre-election theater. At the same time, the pro-Kurdish party is still political dynamite for the main opposition Republican People's Party, making a united opposition front unlikely. An AKP alignment with the nationalists of the Nationalist Movement Party would risk upending the peace process completely and reigniting the Kurdish insurgency. Given the polarized positions between the AKP and its potential coalition partners, should the AKP lose its majority in this election, the country faces the potential for early elections and an unstable political path after 13 years of one-party rule.

In the end, a weakened AKP, whether it can form a government on its own or needs to find a coalition partner, will be a highly paranoid party under a leader willing to go beyond constitutional bounds to preserve his power while he still has the executive authority to do so. The HDP is the party to watch June 7. But neither its success nor failure will ensure a more stable political future for Turkey.

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